RED WING - U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials say they have seen improvements in performance at the Prairie Island nuclear plant, but that progress must be maintained to eliminate issues that could undermine safety.

Agency officials met with plant managers at a public meeting Thursday in Red Wing to discuss their annual assessment of the nuclear facility. The agency flagged the plant - which is owned by Xcel Energy -- with a number of issues tied to human performance in 2009.

"They've been making progress. The question is whether the improvements made will be sustained," NRC Division of Reactor Projects Director Steven West said.

Issues in 2009 crossed a variety of areas, but generally involved a relative lack of clear processes to manage problems, and decisions among plant staff that were not based upon "conservative assumptions," according to Carla Stoedter, the NRC's senior resident inspector at the Prairie Island plant.

None of these issues directly violated NRC regulations, said NRC public affairs officer Viktoria Mitlyng, but taken together they present substantive cross-cutting issues that are cause for concern with the agency.

Xcel site Vice President Mark Schimmel said the issues, identified originally in late 2008, were a wake-up call to plant management and staff.

"We were operating at the industry average, but performance was declining," he said. "It forced us to sit down and be honest with ourselves about how we could improve."

Over the past year, plant officials say they have instituted a recovery plan designed to improve overall performance. Xcel recovery plan manager Scott Northart said that includes the development of clearer ways to manage challenges with equipment, more rigid enforcement of plant rules, fostering peer-to-peer coaching and giving lead technicians more of a leadership role.

Northart said that the plan has resulted in significant improvements in the plant's operations.

"We've seen some results. We know we're not there yet, but we're going to continue to get better and improve our performance," he said.

Despite improvements, the NRC still labels the plant as having substantive cross-cutting issues in need of improvement. Mitlyng said that this designation will remain in place until agency officials are satisfied that progress at the plant is permanent.

"The progress has to be sustained so that the NRC has confidence that these same issues won't appear on our radar screen in the future," she said.

Two 2008 incidents involving low to moderate "white" safety issues were also discussed at the meeting. An NRC investigation found that Xcel officials had identified and eliminated the root cause of an incident Oct. 28, 2008, involving a shipment of radioactive material that exceeded accepted safety level.

The results of the agency's investigation of another incident in late 2008 involving a faulty feedwater pump will be announced in late June.

Schimmel said that the two incidents are examples of what the facility is trying to prevent with its recovery plan. He said that in developing its plan, the plant had looked at the procedures of other nuclear facilities to see how they managed similar issues.

"The industry as a whole had better controls in those cases," he said.